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December 28, 2010  |  permalink

Thomas P.M. Barnett Reviews Aerotropolis

(Author, analyst and Esquire contributing editor Thomas P.M. Barnett reviewed Aerotropolis in his weekly column for World Politics Review on December 6th, 2010.)


H.G. Wells’ futuristic 1933 classic, “The Shape of Things to Come,” predicted a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity’s recovery would depend on the airplane as the primary mechanism for both travel and political rule—the benevolent “dictatorship of the air.” The book reflected Wells’ prescient fears of catastrophic world war and his faith in technology’s capacity to tame mankind’s worst instincts.

A book due out in March entitled, “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next,” is the closest thing to a real-world vision to rival that of Wells. The book, written by journalist Greg Lindsay, is based on the visionary ideas of business professor John Kasarda, a latter-day Wells who dreams of building future cities around airports instead of the other way around.

At first blush, it’s easy to be repulsed. Who wants the noise and the architectural “charm” of the hotels, office buildings and warehouses that congregate around such transportation hubs? The simplest answer is jobs. What rules in today’s globalized economy is accessibility and speed, and modern airports are its fastest connection points—the physical embodiment of our increasingly e- commerce-driven world. Yes, the vast bulk of trade still goes by sea, but already one-third of its value travels by air. Indeed, the value of air cargo has grown more than four times faster than global trade over the past several decades.

When you think about it, there’s plenty of evidence from America’s own historical experience to support Kasarda’s vision. Prior to the Civil War, railroads were built between existing cities in the region east of the Mississippi river. But check out the map west of the Mississippi and you’ll spot a far different pattern, with cities clustered along railroad lines. Modern bedroom communities and suburbs likewise reflect this logic, with towns that sprang up primarily by virtue of their commuting distance—by car—from the downtowns of central cities.

Examples of quasi-aerotropolises in the U.S., writes Lindsay, can already be found in the business corridors that surround Chicago’s O’Hare airport (half a million jobs within a five-mile radius), the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (400,000 jobs) and Dulles International Airport (200,000 jobs) in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. Cities and regions that make the monumental commitment to building and maintaining an international air hub will prosper. Take Atlanta, for instance, whose Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is the largest employer in the state of Georgia. But cities that take a pass—like Boston did in the 1980s, when it rejected the idea of a Dulles-style behemoth out in the sticks—suffer competitively.

The city of Memphis, once ruled by King Cotton and its rivers, now stands tall once again as the Cargo King of the global economy, a title it’s held onto for the past 18 years. The city managed this spectacular feat by doing whatever it took, in terms of expanding its airport, to keep the now- global shipper FedEx happy after the corporation left its hometown of Little Rock in 1972 to set up what grew into its gargantuan facilities in Memphis. FedEx is responsible for 95 percent of the cargo traffic that makes Memphis the No. 1 air-cargo hub in the world. Today, the business ecosystem that’s sprung up around Memphis’ cargo and passenger airport facilities accounts for one out of every three jobs in the region. Among the many seemingly unrelated beneficiaries is the National Eyebank Center, as Memphis is the best location for shipping transplant corneas around the country.

Fred Smith, FedEx’s CEO and founder, is a Kasarda disciple. As he puts it, “Not every great city will be an aerotropolis, but those cities that are an aerotropolis will be great ones.” As far as America is concerned, that will involve more refits than new constructions, epitomized by the many major cities that are finally getting around to laying a subway or light-rail line out to their hub airport on the outskirts of town.

But to see Kasarda’s real vision take shape, we should look overseas, where hundreds of major cities have yet to be born. Today, our global population of roughly six-and-a-half-billion is half- urbanized and half-rural. By 2050, when we peak as a species at somewhere between 9 billion and 10 billion, more than 6 billion will live in cities, meaning that humanity essentially requires twice as many cities as we have today. It will be in many of those new metropolises that Kasarda’s impact will be felt.
The “connectivity” rule here, as Kasarda describes it, is rather simple: Personal income and air travel tend to rise equally, so as that global middle class continues to emerge, air travel will simply skyrocket. China, for example, will send well more than 100 million travelers abroad each year by 2020. To accommodate that flow and the rising domestic market, China is building 100 new airports by 2020. By the time that’s all done, 1.5 billion Chinese will live within 90 minutes of an airport.

But the real competition will remain in the lucrative air-cargo business. As Kasarda likes to note, “Individual companies don’t compete. Supply chains compete. Networks and systems compete.” Soon to join that global competition are planned mega-airports/cities right out of the Kasarda playbook: the “aerotropolis emirates” of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, where ambitious monarchs are “playing SimCity for real”; and South Korea’s stunning New Songdo City, a metropolis built around an airport built on a man-made island—a “pocket Manhattan” designed to rival Hong Kong for the cargo connectivity to mainland China that it offers the world economy.

Lindsay’s best arguments in the book dispel a lot of myths about the allure of deglobalization, especially when it comes to CO2 emissions and the “cool chain” that increasingly moves food around the world. Air cargo accounts for a mere 2 percent to 3 percent of CO2 emitted globally each year, far less than the roughly one-fifth put out by cattle. Eating produce from another continent raises incomes there, while eating a Big Mac does far more environmental damage. In other words, it’s not the miles a food product travels but the product itself that matters when it comes to measuring the effect of globalization’s ever-lengthening food supply chains on the planet.
More broadly, “Aerotropolis” is a mind-expanding ride that reminds us, once again, that humanity needs no apocalypse to reinvent itself and its surroundings.

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a non-resident senior fellow of the Arizona State University Threatcasting Lab, a non-resident senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative. He was the founding chief communications officer of Climate Alpha and remains a senior advisor. Previously, he was an urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he explored the implications of AI and augmented reality at urban scale.

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